The ethics of Google


Even Google has ethical problems to deal with. The company is now embroiled in a very public struggle to decide what kind of business it gets involved in. Over three thousand of its employees have signed an open letter calling on the company to cancel Project Maven, an ‘AI surveillance engine that uses “wide area motion imagery” data captured by US government drones to detect vehicles and other objects, track their motions and provide results to the Department of Defense.’

Remember that this is the company that has the motto ‘Don’t be evil’ in its corporate code of conduct.  Those who have signed the letter believe that Google should not be in the business of war. They want to see the company issue a clear policy statement stating that it nor its contractors will ever get involved in such business.

Senior staff within the company claim that the technology is not designed to be used directly in killing people and that its development will prove useful in other applications. The juxtaposition of drones and the Department of Defense in the same sentence would make me doubt this.

It is an interesting standoff. The question is can we ever be so black and white about such ethical questions? Can we completely avoid industries that may have an involvement in the defence (or aggression) industry? The military needs to eat and clothe itself. It needs to move about and communicate. Is there any industry that is not tainted by the possibility of being used by the military.

Of course it will be pointed out that there is a big difference in something you have designed being used for war and something that was designed specifically for war, but it is a difficult line to draw.

I am firmly behind the employees of Google who have signed the letter yet when I look back to the turmoil in Europe early in the twentieth century I would hope, if such things happened again, that the talents of Google et al were on our side.

Taking an ethical stance is not easy yet the actions of the Google employees at least raise the question and get us to think about some of the issues.

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